I’ve written elsewhere that, in my judgment, Marty Krystall is the very best of the post- Coltrane reed players. And for anyone still unfamiliar with this remarkable musician (he’s worked and recorded with people like Steve Lacy and Charlie Haden but has largely confined his activities to the Los Angeles area) I can think of no better entrée than the album at hand.
Krystall has said that he wants to surprise himself as well as the listener when he plays. “I want to compose in the moment, spontaneously, and to come up with different sounds. It’s about sounds for me—colors, textures—not licks or notes. I try to get the most juice I can in my tone. And I want to find things on the horns that I couldn’t get to before. I also want to utilize the full capacity of the instruments.”
That statement places Krystall solidly in the realm of the ultra-modernists. But Krystall is hardly a devotee of the arcane. He’s a musician who wants to use his prodigious virtuosity not to intellectually impress or intimidate his audience but to move and shake it. If he’s essentially an emotive player, however, he’s a strikingly disciplined one who never descends to empty pyrotechnics or solipsistic meanderings. Cogent and lucid, his solos can claim a consistently coherent structure and, as highly charged as they may get, are models of focus and compression. Certainly in this album, a celebration of his roots in rhythm and blues, Krystall makes music that is eminently accessible as well as viscerally stirring.
“What I wanted to do here,” Krystall explains, “is recreate a period in my life when I was very much into rhythm and blues, a time, around 1970, when I was in my late teens, and all but consumed by that music.
“It was a busy time for me,” he says, “and I rarely got more than three hours sleep a night. I was teaching woodwinds at a music store in the late afternoon, then making gigs in black R&B clubs in Hollywood and after-hours clubs in south-central L.A. until six in the morning. From 11AM to 3PM it was constant jazz jam sessions. I was living in Venice then, in a court where a lot of musicians lived. We would play in each others garages and musicians from all over Los Angeles County would show up. There was a Hammond organ in one of the garages and I developed my sound mainly by playing over guitars and the Hammond organ.
“By playing R&B,” he adds, “especially in clubs, I also learned how to relate to an audience and how to feed off of it. It was about getting the crowd yelling and screaming. If you could do that then you knew you’d succeeded. If you didn’t you had to figure out what you did wrong and correct it. You could say that I learned how to play performing for black audiences. And, maybe because I was the only Jewish kid on the block when I was growing up and knew a little bit about racism, it was always black music that I gravitated to. I wasn’t interested in West Coast Jazz. My main heroes in that period were John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. But I was also very taken with people like King Curtis and Junior Walker. I wanted to play funkier and more soulfully and with the energy they had. I would practice before gigs to make sure I was hot.
“You have to have talent and the chops to pull it off, of course, but it’s really passion and drive that count. And I learned that from playing R&B and jazz seventeen hours a day for eighteen months.”
To assist him in recapturing what he describes as his “R&B side,” Krystall enlisted musicians who, for the most part, he first encountered in the early ‘70s. And it’s an illustrious bunch. Calvin Keys, guitar, Jerry Peters, piano and Hammond organ, Buell Neidlinger, bass, and Peter Erskine, drums are, each in his way, certified legends
Calvin Keys, present on six of the tracks, is a consummate musician with the rare ability to straddle the full spectrum of styles from gospel to “free jazz.” Keys has worked with some of the great organ trios, including those led by Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff and Groove Holmes. He’s also played with Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Sonny Stitt, Ahmad Jamal and Pharoah Sanders, among others of comparable stature. Jerry Peters, whom Krystall calls “a genius with so much technique—he performs miracles at the keyboard,” is a Grammy award winner and a songwriter best known for the hit single, “Going in Circles” by the Friends of Distinction. Peters has played with some of the most noteworthy performers and groups of his time, including, Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, The Emotions, The Jacksons, Diana Ross, Deniece Williams, Gladys Knight, Al Green and Lionel Ritchie. Peter Erskine, who was a member of Weather Report, is a first-to-call drummer when you’re in need of a brilliant time-keeper—just ask Diana Krall or Linda Ronstadt. And Buell Neidlinger! His résumé includes stints with virtually everybody from Little Esther, Bobby Blue Bland to Gil Evans, John Cage and Cecil Taylor. Is there any kind of music that this singular musician can’t play, or that isn’t enhanced by his playing of it?
Considering that some of these men hadn’t played with Krystall for several decades, the collaborative ensemble work in this set is nothing short of amazing. And so is what these players do as individuals.
Peters, for example, who contributed two terrific numbers to the session, “Round & Round” (with its compelling chords and syncopated beat) and the stunningly lovely, samba-inflected “Hannah’s Tune,” swings mightily throughout on both piano and organ—what a right hand! And, harmonically and melodically, Keys is superbly inventive in his solos, particularly on “Round & Round” and “Tenor Badness.”
But this is Krystall’s date and it’s his extraordinary musical gifts that shine the brightest. I’m speaking of his capacity for relentlessly swinging, as in, most conspicuously, his flights on “Round & Round,” Thelonious Monk’s “Introspection” and “Beybluhor.” (The latter piece, taking its inspiration from vocal music—opera and R&B—and influenced by Krystall’s experience in a backup role for R&B singers, is based on Peters’s rearranged harmonies of “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” and it’s notable for the interpolation, by Krystall, of his arresting original melody.)
But the above’s just for openers. I’m pointing as well to Krystall’s ability to sustain a creative line at breakneck speed, as he does in Monk’s “Skippy,” and to the poignant lyricism of which he’s capable, as evidenced on “Hannah’s Tune” and Billy Strayhorn’s haunting “Blood Count” (an homage to Johnny Hodges). I’m also referring to the depth of his connection to the blues that is manifested on the classic Benny Golson composition, “Stablemates,” on Neidlinger’s “Billy’s Blooze” and on the album’s title number, “Liquid Krystall Displayed” (a take on LCD for those too old to grasp the reference). Not least, I’m talking about the authority with which he embraces and commands the full resources of the tenor saxophone, as demonstrated on “Tenor Badness” (after Sonny Rollins’s Tenor Madness).
Talent. Chops. Passion and drive. These are skills and virtues that Krystall owns in abundance and which he exhibits to perfection in this album—an album that, as I’ve indicated, will afford the listener an excellent introduction to a genuinely outstanding jazz musician.